Sunday, January 07, 2007

"The Trans-Texas Corridor is not the answer."

Funding solutions for planned corridor legislators' dilemma

Transportation network could use private money

January 07, 2007

Longview News-Journal
Copyright 2007

More than 54,000 cars a day pass through Interstate 35 near Hillsboro where the highway splits, leading motorists either through Dallas or Fort Worth.

Added volume on New year's Day slowed traffic to 5 mph through the town, with cars stuck in medians and map-savvy drivers turning the Hill County Courthouse square into a traffic jam.

Hillsboro is more than 150 miles from Tyler, Longview and Marshall, but one official says the growing pressure on the Central Texas highway is beginning to affect East Texas arteries.

"I-35 is one of the busiest in the state, and people are already coming through our rural East Texas towns to bypass Dallas and Houston," said Jeff Austin, chairman of the Northeast Texas Regional Mobility Authority, "and we don't have nearly the infrastructure that they do."

Enter the Trans-Texas Corridor, a proposed multi-use, statewide transportation network of tollways, free lanes, rail and utility right-of-ways. The proposal was announced by Gov. Rick Perry in late 2005 after the state was warned that federal transportation dollars to Texas would soon be slim to none.

According to, plans call for the corridor to be completed in phases over the next 50 years with routes prioritized according to the state's needs. The Texas Department of Transportation would oversee planning, construction and ongoing maintenance, but private vendors would be responsible for much of the daily operations.

It is that last phrase that has East Texas legislators flashing caution lights. Reps. Tommy Merritt and Bryan Hughes and Sen. Kevin Eltife have voiced support for increasing the state's gasoline tax rather than tolling and privatization to pay for future highway infrastructure improvements. Texas' gas tax rate is 20 cents per gallon — the 12th lowest rate among the 50 states.

"I think toll roads are a piece of the solution," Hughes told Longview News-Journal editors in December. "On the other hand, pay as you go makes sense.

"If we were to index the gas tax to inflation and dedicate it to highways, it would go a long way to lessen infrastructure needs."

Those needs don't stop with I-35. Longstanding coalitions from South Texas to Houston and northward are continuing their decades-old push for a controlled-access highway — or I-69 — that would follow along the U.S. 59 route.

Harrison County Commissioner James Greer attended the I-69 Alliance's annual December banquet, as did NET-RMA Vice-Chairman Linda Ryan Thomas and former Carthage Mayor Charles Thomas.

Even though federal highway funds for the I-69 proposal have been pulled, Greer said environmental studies are being completed for segments of what would be Trans-Texas Corridor 69 from Houston southward. The plan, he said, is still to continue the highway north to Texarkana.

"The original plan was to come up through Texas somewhere around Carthage and that area and start northeast and north of Shreveport and into Tennessee and Arkansas and that area," Greer said. "Since the federal government pulled the plug on the funds for it, I don't know what Louisiana is going to do with it. Of course, Texas is looking at alternative funding sources."

Two private-sector groups have submitted proposals to develop the proposed 600-mile TTC-69 thoroughfare from the Texas-Mexico border through East Texas. The private vendor with the winning proposal would handle daily operations of the corridor as well as provide its agreed investment. However, TxDOT would oversee planning, construction and ongoing maintenance of the project.

Rusk County Judge Sandra Hodges is hopeful that TTC-69 cuts through her county, but she said she isn't excited about having investors from outside Texas and the United States paying for state road construction.

"I know that they need to be creative, and I know that we are growing and we're going to have to have the roads," she said. "I'm not sure that I want some foreign company ... coming in and building these highways. I think TxDOT is a large part of our government, and with all the engineers they have and the people that work for them, somehow we need to have our own people building those roads."

Gregg County Judge Bill Stoudt also sides with area legislators, saying that a gas tax is the fairest way to pay for transportation infrastructure.

"What (state officials are) asking us now is to get into a lot of debt," he said. "That's a formula that could be a tremendous issue down the road when you get all of this debt in place and you have no way to pay for it."

East Texas officials have long wanted a controlled-access highway — a highway on which entrance and departure of traffic is regulated, such as an expressway — to Houston.

Because of overall decreases in future funding commitments, TxDOT has trimmed its budget to handle mostly maintenance and operation of existing roadways.

In 2003, Texas lawmakers created RMAs, which allow regions to come together to develop alternative funding sources after identifying mobility needs. The Northeast Texas RMA was founded by Smith and Gregg counties, but has since added four adjoining counties. All of the counties have expressed either slight or heavy interest in bring I-69 or TTC-69 to the region.

The U.S. Census Bureau predicts that Texas will grow 1.6 percent annually, adding another 5.7 million people between 2005 and 2015.

Many officials agree that north-south transportation infrastructure is needed. It is the TTC proposal and its potential funding mechanism that has some leaders moving in different directions.

"The Trans-Texas Corridor is not the answer," Eltife said. "Toll roads should be a piece of the overall infrastructure picture, but it's not going to solve our problems. I think transportation is our number one issue for our economic development future. If you can't travel and move in our little cities, people aren't going to move here, so we need to encourage community leaders to work every option on the table."

© 2007 Longview News-Journal: